A land where the vulnerable are expendable
As questions are raised about the readiness of Manus Island to receive asylum seekers and debate rages about whether the “no advantage” test is harsh enough, it becomes increasingly clear that we are in the process of writing pages of history that future generations will wish they could erase.
These pages will sound strangely familiar to some written in the years prior to 2007 – tales of hunger strikes, children in detention, riots and protests – that a nation sought to expunge in the election of a leader promising a new approach towards asylum seekers.
In those days, the images of lips sewn together, the suicide attempts and the destruction of people’s mental health together became unconscionable to the electorate. Today, political reality, the media environment and public opinion have conspired to lead us down a path we have trod before, and not enjoyed treading.
The coming months will see history repeating. Christmas Island is overcrowded. Asylum seekers on Nauru are engaging in protests and men have attempted suicide. Families and unaccompanied children will soon be detained on Manus Island.
We have read these pages before. And yet we are determined, it seems, to write them again.
As everyone involved searches for someone to blame, what becomes increasingly clear is that authorship of this developing history is shared. We are co-creators of the human suffering that will begin to filter its way into public awareness over the coming years, as it has in years gone by.
A too-simple reading of recent history would suggest that blame lies with our political leaders. By turning a manageable humanitarian issue into a partisan battleground, all parties have ensured that the world’s most vulnerable people remain expendable pawns in their powers game.
An additional measure of blame lies with the Australians who create our media. Hysteria, hyperbole, misinformation and giving oxygen to prejudice, lies and vilification has sold papers, attracted viewers and, in an ongoing cycle, ensured that “asylum seekers” has remained the hot topic for well over a decade.
Highlight some controversial rhetoric, force someone to respond, follow it up with a recycled picture of distressed people huddled on a rickety boat, find someone willing to use the words “flood”, “armada” or “queue jumpers” and the media cycle, with accompanying sales, continues.
However, there are other co-authors of this repetitive chapter. Refugee and asylum seeker advocates, like myself, have been fighting to end the policy of mandatory detention and we have not been able to change the mind of the Australian public. We can list the real and convincing reasons for our failure, yet we must recognise that more Australians want to send people to Nauru than those who do not. We have not been able to significantly alter the direction of national opinion, and therefore failed to create a national electorate where anything less than ruthless deterrence is a viable policy option.
The final co-author of this facsimile history is the Australian people. We have collectively engineered a political reality that celebrates cruelty as “security”, where compassion is seen as weakness and where sloganeering is given more credibility than fact-finding. We reward clever insults at the expense of cultural innovation. We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated towards political ends despite the glaringly obvious inconsistencies in rhetoric and policy.
One example: we know that people who arrive by plane to seek asylum in Australia are not detained but immediately go to live in the community while their claims are processed. And have done so for years. “Boat people” are a political issue and “plane people” are not for no other reason than the fact that politicians determined that it would be expedient to politicise Australia’s role in this global reality.
If someone in 2001 had determined to fight a political battle over the dangerous queue jumpers who can afford plane tickets and are now living next door to us instead of taking the opportunities presented by a Norwegian freighter and children in the ocean we would be having a very different discussion in 2012.
We are willing participants in an artificial drama. We are all complicit. All Australians. We are the architects of the current political reality and share the authorship of the history now being experienced by men on Nauru, and soon to be lived out by families and children on Manus Island.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The next chapter does not need to be a carbon copy of the histories we’d rather not read. We can create a new political, social and historical reality together. It will take a collective decision to turn off the soap opera politics we’ve enjoyed tuning in to, a united determination to reward leaders who call out our best instead of appealing to our worst and the choice to take ownership of our future.
We can write a future our children will be proud of – just, compassionate, humane, inclusive and fair. It’s time to realise that no one else will write that future for us, and that once it’s etched in history there’s no eraser that can undo it.
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